Middle way on mining

As in the impeachment court, so it was at the recent mining forum in Makati City, where pro- and antimining advocates engaged in a heated face-off, capped by the sight of arguably the country’s most powerful businessman, Manny V. Pangilinan, losing his cool and calling the environmentalist-scion of one of the country’s most influential families, Gina Lopez, a liar.

We meant the concept of hearsay—in the impeachment court something treated with disdain, the testimony classified as such eventually getting thrown out and declared inadmissible. At the mining forum, words akin to hearsay were also present, but not as one of the bright minds in the room pointed it out: namely, that when Pangilinan and Lopez were trading barbs on the effect mining can have on rural communities, both of them, really, were mouthing second-hand testimony. Perhaps they’ve seen tangible evidence of it on their occasional visits to mining areas, but neither of them has actually lived there, to experience first-hand, in the raw, how it is to be at the receiving end of this wealth-producing but also injurious activity about which they were now at each other’s throats.

The right person to have challenged Pangilinan’s apologia for the mining sector was not Lopez, however well-intentioned or deep into the cause she might be. The right person should have been an actual inhabitant of any one of the country’s mining areas who could testify, in his or her own words, and certainly more eloquently than Lopez could ever manage or Pangilinan could ever hope to rebut, whether gouging huge swaths of the country inside out to extract the mineral riches said to be underneath, displacing residents and perhaps turning the land into a howling wilderness for good, would be all worth it.

But from the ranks of farmers, fishermen and tribal minorities, the marginal and destitute folk who have lived for generations in those remote, undeveloped areas where mining often occurs and that inevitably have to bear the brunt of its aftereffects, no one was at the forum to speak on their behalf. Because, as former elections commissioner and now Meralco management consultant Christian Monsod ruefully pointed out in his speech: “It is unfortunate that two major stakeholders on the issue of mining were not invited to speak today—the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Department of Agriculture.”

Egregious omission, indeed—and quite symptomatic of the long way the mining debate has to go to arrive at a consensus that’s fair, inclusive and acceptable to all sectors. At present, to hear the two sides press their respective cases is to end up with absolutist, polar positions. On the one hand, the mining industry and its proponents have only used the rosiest economic projections—$840 billion of potential profits from reportedly the fifth most mineralized country in the world—to push for full-scale mining as almost the magic pill to drag the Philippines out of its economic doldrums. Meanwhile, they’re quick to dismiss any resulting environmental damage as minimal (only 62,000 hectares, or 0.2 percent of the country’s land mass, is covered by mining claims, Chamber of Mines director Gerard Brimo said at the forum).

The antimining side, on the other hand, points to the staggering devastation of lands, ecosystems and human communities that mining inevitably leaves in its wake—and all for a pittance, really, as the industry’s average contribution to the Philippine GDP from 2000-2009, for instance, was a dismal .91 percent, rising barely to 1.30 percent in 2010. As for the claim that mining can significantly generate jobs, that, too, seems a mirage: Its share of total employment in 2010 averaged merely 0.5 percent, or about 197,000 workers.

Is “responsible mining” possible, a middle way that allows the country to tap its mineral wealth while keeping to the minimum the harm such activity imposes on the environment and the inhabitants (unfortunately, also often the poorest and most defenseless citizens) of the affected areas? Unless that elusive but nonnegotiable middle ground is reached, President Aquino’s administration would do well to proceed with caution on this complex issue. The relentless push for greater laissez-faire in mining should, instead, prod the state to ensure that it is not stampeded into bartering long-term national welfare for short-term economic gains. This is not a game between moneyed factions alone. The entire nation, including its future generations, will live with the consequences of a badly crafted mining policy.

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Tags: ecological disaster , economic benefits , editorial , environment , Indigenous People , mining

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